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In 2013, Can People of Indian Descent Be American?

09/18/2013 11:48 am ET | Updated Nov 18, 2013

Today the country grappled with a mind-blowing question: How American is a person born and raised in America, and who carries an American passport?

On the surface, this sounds like one of those "Yahoo! Questions" that some lonely, disoriented Internet user is totally invested in getting to the bottom of, not realizing that everyone else is rolling their eyes. But this is real life.

I had recently determined that I am, in fact, American. However, the controversy over whether Nina Davuluri is Miss America has set me back about 20 years in my own struggle with my Indian-American identity. It has been a long struggle.

I began kindergarten in Alaska, where I was convinced I was Mexican. It was a logical conclusion: No one looked like me except a Barney character whose abuela came from Mexico. I proceeded to tell many people about my own abuela who lived in Mexico, but my plan to fit in was thwarted by my nosy mother: "No, no, our family is actually from India" -- wherever that was. When I realized that the story about my alternate identity was achieving limited success, my 5-year-old self became disgruntled, frustrated. One day, I approached Mom and said, "I wish I was peach," referring to the Crayola crayon I used to draw most of my friends.

Soon, we moved back to Texas, where things became even more complicated. I continued to stand out. No one was like me -- not at school, or in the media -- but still, this land was supposed to be my home. Plus, I now had a younger brother to deal with. He was born in Alaska, so did that make him an Eskimo? I was bothered -- and bullied. Never once did it cross my mind that I was American. It was not an option.

Then, while living in Maryland, 9/11 happened. On the news, a woman was mourning in the streets of New York. She strongly believed that all Arabs and Indians should go back to where they came from. It troubled me for two reasons: First, she was African American and (sadly) probably knew what it meant to be misjudged by her race. Why was she so eagerly and mindlessly provoking prejudice? Hate? Secondly, where do I come from? When people ask me this, I usually say America. "No," they persist, "where are you from?" What they are really asking me is, "Why are you brown?" (Or, as my mother likes to say, "golden." Right on, Mom.)

So can a brown person not be American? Are we doomed to identity purgatory? Forever on the periphery of being American, but not quite there? Are we not in the American club? Just relegated to membership in the "broad American family" (thank you, President Obama)? Does this mean we are outsiders in our own home? Raise your hand if you can relate to these feelings -- my suspicion is that there are a lot of us. Yes, even in 2013.

Consider this: In September 1978, a 21-year-old arrived in Tulsa, Okla., with all of his possessions in tow -- one suitcase and $200. He had no family and no friends, just a spot at the University of Tulsa to pursue his masters. He had worked all his life for this moment. Over the next 35 years he got a scholarship to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Texas, joined the energy industry, put his kids through college, became a senior executive, spoke at prominent events, traveled to every continent (including Antarctica), and briefed world leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi and Bill Gates on energy policy, climate change and the like. Like every good American he enjoys talking politics, watching football and the Macy's Parade on Thanksgiving and having a beer with his friends. He is so proud of his country that, ever year, on July 4, he listens to the reading of the American Constitution on NPR. Just because, you know, America is pretty darn exceptional -- especially from his perspective.

Plot twist: The person in the story is my dad -- surprise! Like Nina Davuluri's family, he is an Indian immigrant. He was born in India, has an Indian name and looks Indian. But -- hold on to your seat -- he is an American citizen. Gasp!!

Why should Indians be any less American than the Irish, Italian or English immigrants? Are we not living the same American dream? In fact, it has been reported that Indian-Americans are the highest earning ethnic group in America. In a separate report conducted by common sense, it appeared that most Indians came to the U.S. looking for better opportunity and, having succeeded, were inspired to give back. It also seems that most were horrified and saddened by 9/11 and continue to harbor these feelings when any terrorist attack is committed against the U.S. Maybe I'm going out on a limb here, but I think most people in the Indian community were hurt today when they realized that the overt racism my dad faced in the 1970s has not gone away. It has diminished, but it is still out there. A disturbing number of people seem to think Indians are Arabs who are Muslims who have two career paths: 7-11 or al-Qaeda. Despite Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, despite The Mindy Project, Kal Penn, M. Night Shyamalan, and Aziz Ansari, despite Amartya Sen, Indra Nooyi, Hari Sreenivasan, Fareed Zakaria, despite Miss USA 2013, Indians still have to prove their American-ness -- to ourselves and to others.

We cannot ignore these debates. As ugly as they are, and as great as Twitter is for exposing the supreme racists of America idiotic enough to publicly voice their views only for Buzzfeed to name and shame them, these conversations are also an opportunity for truly patriotic Americans to affirm that, simply put, we are okay with America being a salad bowl and not a melting pot. Who knows, maybe we'll move past toleration to celebration. For now, as a society it seems that we have decided to delay this yet another day.

When the American anthem refers to the "land of the free and the home of the brave," it's not just a salute to the courageous heroes of the Revolution but also to the millions of immigrants and indigenous people who sweated, sacrificed and staked out success here. They also fought to be American.